ITHACA, NY – “Look at your name. Look at your title. You should go home and write a letter of apology and publish in the Ithaca Journal, saying how you failed.”

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These were the words leveled at Tompkins County Health Director Frank Kruppa by one angry parent at a meeting in Enfield last week, regarding elevated levels of lead in the school’s water. The man went on to insinuate that perhaps Kruppa should look for another line of work.

It’s human nature, when some pain or misfortune is inflicted on you or your family, to look for someone to blame.

Related: Parents furious about Caroline elementary lead levels, lack of communication

Make no mistake, the Ithaca City School District and the Tompkins County Health Department did, on at least one level, fail and are worthy of blame.

As ICSD Chief Administration Officer David Brown said on that night, it was a failure on the part of the school not to notify parents sooner when the elevated lead levels were discovered. It was a failure for which Brown offered sincere apologies.

Some would argue that it is also a failure on the part of the Tompkins County Health Department to not recommend testing for most children who were potentially exposed to the lead-contaminated water. The Health Department, as of this writing, is holding to that stance.

The real failure starts way above the school district level, above the county level, even above the state level.

Put simply, the federal guidelines set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency for testing water for lead are inadequate.

The 90th percentile

Consider how testing has been performed, per the EPA’s guidelines.

The water in Caroline and Enfield schools was tested once every three years. Each time, water samples were taken from five different sources in each school – out of 65 total sources in Enfield and 91 in Caroline.

That means just over 5 percent of water sources in Caroline and just shy of 8 percent in Enfield are tested every three years.

The EPA’s guidelines say that as long as the 90th percentile of tested samples is below the “action level” of 15 parts per billion, then no action needs to be taken. (For more about what parts per billion and other jargon means, follow the link below.)

Related: Opinion: Lead in the water at Ithaca schools, fear or real danger?

When elevated levels were detected and the two schools were retested four months later, they tested ten sources instead of five. In Enfield, this turned up just one sample that was above the action level. Caroline turned up two.

By the EPA’s measure, Enfield’s second test meets the requirements. The 90th percentile of samples tested at below the action level. Based on that test, the school would not have been under violation.

Enfield results after the January tests – which technically pass using “90th percentile” rule.
Enfield results after the January tests – which technically pass using “90th percentile” rule.

The big (ugly) picture

The complete testing results released on Tuesday paint a different picture.

Related: More than 40 water samples test high for lead at Caroline, Enfield schools

Based on the second test performed in January, you might expect approximately 10 percent of samples in Enfield and 20 percent in Caroline to test as having high lead levels — the latter would be worrisome in itself.

The actual numbers? Enfield: 16.9 percent. Caroline: 38.4 percent.

On the one hand, some of these samples come from fixtures that students would be unlikely to ever drink from. On the other, at least one drinking fountain in both schools tested at 150 ppb or above – more than ten times the “safe” level. (A total of eight drinking fountains in Caroline and three in Enfield were above the level.)

Dr. Jeffrey K. Griffiths, former chairman of the EPA’s Drinking Water Committee recently told the New York Times:

”Over the last decade we’ve learned that the testing routines did not detect true risk from lead, that there are forms of lead that we’re not testing for and that testing was too infrequent. It’s hard to see how the status quo in lead testing for water is adequately serving the public.”

By the book

I don’t want to suggest that the information presented above lets ICSD off the hook. They were legally required to notify parents within 30 days and they failed to do that. Even if they believed the tests were anomalies, that does not excuse that oversight.

From some parents’ perspective, the Tompkins Health Department was downplaying the risk by suggesting that there was no need to have children tested.

But with the exception of the communication issue — granted it’s a big issue — the school and the health department played it by the book, and in fact went above and beyond by having both schools tested completely. (Remember that according to EPA standards, the January test in Enfield would have seen the school pass without need for further action.)

The bigger problem seems to be that the playbook they are working from is woefully in need of an update.

On Wednesday, ICSD Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown said in WHCU interview that Ithaca area schools “weren’t the first, and wouldn’t be the last” to face this kind of issue. It’s an unfortunate reality — water infrastructure systems across the country are showing their age. The EPA estimates that $384 billion will need to be spent in the next 15 years to keep our drinking water safe.

We can only hope that that ICSD learns from this mistake and takes a more proactive approach with the rest of the schools in the district.

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.